Father Scott Shaffer of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, livestreamed Mass on Facebook, which was appreciated by his faithful, as noted in the comment section at right. YouTube screenshot
Father Scott Shaffer of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, livestreamed Mass on Facebook, which was appreciated by his faithful, as noted in the comment section at right. YouTube screenshot

In the days leading up to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Franciscan Father James Scullion had a pressing concern. Knowing that he would not be seeing his parishioners and celebrating Mass with them in person, he was figuring out ways in which he could communicate and pray with his parishioners. His solution was to post messages on the parish’s Facebook page.

“We are still a parish, we are still a community of faith,” Father Scullion, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Brant Beach, said as he introduced a prayer service March 21. To add to the reverence, he noted that Michele Beck, parish music minister, had been diligently working on recording hymns and songs that were also posted on Facebook.

“I would encourage you not only to listen to them, but as our music minister leads you in prayer, let those hymns and songs allow you to raise up your voices to praise and give thanks to God, and also allow God to speak to all of us and to all of our hearts,” he said.

Staying Connected

There is a growing list of parishes that are using technology to bring the Mass and other forms of prayer to the faithful during the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of priests like Father Scullion are turning to technology and using their cell phones, YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Flocknotes and parish websites to reach their flocks.

What priests present ranges from messages of concern to updates on what’s going on in the Diocese and parishes and simply letting people know they are not alone.

“I still have a duty to preach and teach, and we live in a time where the tools to do that are very convenient to use,” said Father Todd Carter, pastor of Holy Innocents Parish, Neptune, who has been posting to Facebook. “This whole period of social distancing can go in two different ways. We could completely lose all structure and just give into despair or lazy hedonism. Or, we can really dedicate ourselves to prayer and focus on the Lord. I want to encourage people to take the second option as much as possible. Eventually, the pandemic will be over, and I want the Church to be stronger for it.”

Father Carter’s plan is to maintain the parish’s Facebook page and post items including occasional video updates, his bulletin letter and weekly homilies. He is also compiling a parish email list so parishioners can stay in touch and is considering hosting an online Bible study.

“As always, my goal is to proclaim the Gospel and how it connects to life,” said Father Carter, adding that he wants to present topics that talk about hope, deal with death and illness, how to pray, and show charity to others, among others. 

“I think it is very useful, and we are seeing the fruits of it now,” said Father Carter, remarking on how modern-day media and technology can assist priests in reaching their parishioners. “People have a natural need to socialize – that’s why it is so hard to keep them quarantined. They want to be around people and to feel loved. Even though it is not the same as being in the presence of someone, we can provide some of that with social media. It works because it connects people together who otherwise would not be able to see each other.” 

Spiritual Connections

Before Father Scott Shaffer talked about social media undertakings in St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, where he serves as pastor, he wanted to give a shout-out to the faculties and staff of St. Joseph Grammar School and Donovan Catholic High School for their work and collaboration in making sure the various means of technology needed were in place as they continued to remotely educate the students.

“I’m very proud and grateful for that,” he said.

In the parish, Father Shaffer said it’s been a blessing to have the ability to livestream Mass on Facebook from the parish’s Adoration Chapel, then noted that as people watched the Sunday Mass on March 22, he delighted in reading the comments that were posted by parishioners. Many said they responded to the prayers and Mass and assumed the appropriate postures – they stood when it was time to stand, sat when it was time to sit, knelt when it was time to kneel and offered each other the Sign of Peace.

Even though the people are not in physical proximity with one another, technology is “allowing us to make a spiritual connection,” Father Shaffer said.

“What a blessing it is to have the various platforms to reach people,” Father Shaffer said, then added that along with the livestream of Mass, he also recorded it so that it could be seen on Instagram and Twitter. Through such communication, Father Shaffer said, it’s his prayer that he could let people know that the current pandemic is a trying time.

“It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “We are all in this together, and we have to deal with life as it is.”

Try and Try Again

Father Daniel Kirk, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Cinnaminson, smiled when he said a failed attempt at livestreaming Sunday Masses March 21-22 prompted him to post a greeting on Facebook.

“I knew it was important to connect with my community in some fashion, and my first instinct was through our most vital prayer, the Mass,” he said. But when the livestream attempt didn’t pan out, he recorded a reflection on YouTube.

“Ultimately, the communal aspect of our faith is being challenged at the moment, and I think any attempt to bridge the physical gaps between is helpful to many of our people,” said Father Kirk, noting that efforts to livestream Masses are underway and he appreciates the help of generous parishioners who are providing their time, expertise and materials. Until then, he said, he will continue posting messages to YouTube and then distribute it via Facebook and the parish website.

“There are so many messages that people need to hear in this time, but I think most of them center around the reality that while we might be displaced from our normal routine, especially in the liturgical realm, that God’s goodness, grace, and love remain an active and an abundant part of our lives,” Father Kirk said.

“People are craving something of comfort and normalcy. If we as priests, pastors, people of faith, can reach out and say, in a digital presence or otherwise, “Take a deep breath and trust in the Lord,” that goes a very long way in helping others see the wider picture and be reminded of their faith.

“The things that people use to entertain themselves, many of them have been suspended, canceled or postponed,” Father Kirk said. We all need something other than the nightly news to occupy our thoughts. Many of us are grateful to have good reminders of the power of God right now.”